Soft leadership: Can leaders be too soft?

What do people mean when they talk about soft leadership? Why is it a good thing? And can you have too much of it?

What is soft leadership?

What is soft leadership?

Soft leadership is a leadership style that centres relationships and people skills, such as negotiation, persuasion and communication. The phrase is most associated with management maven, Professor MS Rao. Known as "the father of soft leadership", he asserted that soft leadership is most suited to leading aspirational knowledge workers in the modern, technocratic workplace. He also mapped 11 attributes to soft leadership – the "11 Cs". These include character, charisma, conscience, communication, courage, conviction and consistency.

Soft leadership is often contrasted with "hard" leadership, which is seen as being more rigid, pressurised and task focused, and so more autocratic in style. But in reality, there aren't just two polarised ways to lead. Leaders can adopt many styles, including transformational, delegative, participative or authoritative (rather than authoritarian) approaches.

Many elements of these other leadership styles are present in soft leadership. Participative leadership, for example, also centres communication and involves employees in decision making, and servant leadership focuses on the needs of others.

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Why soft leadership?

Why soft leadership?

Employees' expectations of work have changed – they look to work to deliver purpose, and to leaders and organisations to behave ethically and sensitively. People now expect their employers to have better awareness of mental health issues, for example, and 77% of employers think employees are looking for better approaches to diversity, equity and inclusion. So human qualities such as emotional intelligence are now essential to modern leadership.

A softer style of leadership, that emphasises compassion and consistency, can also come into its own in times of change and uncertainty, making it a good fit for seeing employees through challenges such as the Covid pandemic and cost of living crisis. And soft leadership is associated with a more holistic approach to integrating people's passions and personalities into work, rather than a rigid separation between working and non-working life and identities.

All this would seem to support the idea that soft leadership should be the default modern leadership style. But is it always the right approach, or are there situations in which it can be counter-productive?

Hard and soft leadership skills

Hard and soft leadership skills

Today's leaders need a number of soft leadership skills to engage and motivate their teams, and drive their organisations forwards.

  • Assertiveness

    It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that soft leadership is weak and ineffectual, and that leaders adopting this style are pushovers. On the contrary, assertiveness is an essential soft leadership skill. Leaders always need to get things done – but soft leaders achieve this by communicating politely and with consideration, rather than commanding people to carry out tasks.

  • Communication

    Cited by MS Rao as one of the 11Cs of soft leadership, being a good communicator is a crucial soft leadership skill. And it's especially essential to bring people together in an age of hybrid working and distributed teams. On the flipside, poor communication costs companies dear. According to Forbes, 50% of workers say ineffective communication affected their job satisfaction. And 42% said it affected stress levels.

  • Nurturing relationships

    Soft leadership is all about being people-oriented to drive behavioural change, so the ability to foster strong relationships is essential. Leaders need to focus on building trust and providing praise and reassurance. Improving their understanding of employees will enable leaders to put together effective teams. And a focus on relationship building can help minimise conflict in the workplace.

  • Listening

    Having good listening skills is key for effective leadership. Making sure that people feel free to speak their minds, and acting on their feedback and suggestions can help organisations benefit from different perspectives and new ideas. This is a soft skill that leaders need to work on: according to one study, 63% of employees feel their voice has been ignored by their employer or manager. And 34% would rather switch teams or quit their jobs altogether than voice their concerns with management.

  • Showing empathy

    Being empathetic – showing you understand the needs, perspectives and emotions of others – isn't just a way of creating a more considerate workplace, it also has clear impacts on innovation and employee motivation. According to a study by Catalyst, 61% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders said they were often innovative at work. This compares to 13% of people with less empathetic leaders. And showing empathy is appreciated: 88% of workers surveyed by EY said they felt empathetic leadership created loyalty among employees.

  • Persuading and negotiating

    Unlike an autocratic leader, a soft leader can't simply order employees to do as they say or adopt their way of thinking. So, developing skills in negotiating and persuading is essential. Framing issues in terms of benefits, asking the right questions, providing options and listening to different opinions all feed into negotiating and persuading to achieve successful outcomes.

  • Empowering

    Soft leaders empower their employees to achieve to the very best of their ability. Trusting people enough to delegate tasks and responsibilities is a key part of this. When people are given responsibility and allowed to take ownership of their work, they'll learn new skills and grow in confidence.

So soft leadership skills are essential. But there are some situations, especially when there's a clearly defined task to fulfil, that hard leadership skills come strongly into play. Often, these are considered the more managerial skills, such as project management, presentation and planning. Where there's a clear goal in mind, it's up to leaders to set direction and allocate tasks so that it can be achieved efficiently.

The trick is to find the right balance between hard and soft leadership skills, and know when to deploy them.

Can leaders be too soft?

Can leaders be too soft?

Clearly, purely command and control leadership, where the leader is a remote and inflexible authority figure, simply won't cut it in most modern workplaces. But some commentators have warned of risks in adopting a soft leadership style.

One of these is that it isn't a good fit with everyone's personality. Some leaders are more personally guarded and less collaborative than others. But that doesn't necessarily make them bad leaders. They may just find that other styles, such as authoritative leadership or strategic leadership, suit them – and their organisations – better.

Then there's the danger in soft leadership of over-valuing personal relationships. This can result in leaders being afraid to say unpopular things, take tough decisions or insist on a direction for fear of not being liked. The consequences of this can be severe, leading to organisations going down paths that are wrong for them, ultimately affecting the bottom line.

So-called toxic positivity is another issue. One of the strengths of soft leadership is that it models positive behaviours, which can then transform the workplace. But if leaders avoid conflict at all costs, people can follow suit and start to cover up and deny problems. This can result in everyone pretending that things are going well, when in fact, there are serious difficulties.

Finally, leadership that's not assertive enough can be inefficient, with leaders not making clear what's expected of people, not correcting mistakes and not resolving conflict quickly.

Advantages of soft leadership in the workplace

Advantages of soft leadership in the workplace

Using soft leadership skills in the workplace clearly has strong advantages. It can create a culture where people are compassionate, considerate and respectful of each other, improving team cohesion and boosting feelings of belonging.

A leader who listens well will encourage the sharing of innovative ideas, giving their organisation a competitive edge. And as human skills are valued by employees, recruitment, retention and engagement will improve.

However, assertiveness is key, and softness shouldn't mean weakness. All leaders, whatever style they adopt, ultimately must stamp their own vision on an organisation and set clear direction to lead it to success.

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